Perennially criticised by all and sundry both for what they do and don’t do, the referee is the chief authority figure in a game of football. Imbued with the power to enforce the laws of the game and the sole arbiter in the more subjective elements of the game, they have arguably the toughest job on the field.
His or her job is made slightly easier by the presence and expertise of his two ‘assistant referees’ (otherwise known as linesmen) and the third official on the touchline, but the difficulties are self-evident. With football such a passionate, emotive sport, tensions run high amongst the players and the fans, yet the referee is compelled to keep a cool head and maintain calm at all times as well as deal with often inflammatory issues such as penalty decisions.
What makes it worse is that most referees you see today aren’t even professionals! Although a small percentage (usually only those refereeing in the top divisions) are retained by the national Football Associations with this status, the vast majority are merely paid a small fee and have their expenses covered.
Beyond the rather vague obligation to ‘enforce the Laws of the Game’, the referee’s duties are numerous. Beyond the more peripheral duties like ensuring that the ball meets the proper requirements and that there is no illegal equipment being used on the pitch, the referee’s other chief role is to act as a timekeeper (including judging stoppage time in collaboration with the third official) and evaluate when to stop the game in case of injuries or infractions.
To fulfill this duty, the referee takes recourse in the whistle, which can indicate either the start of or a pause in play. Remarkably, referees in the early years of the game signalled using a handkerchief, with the first whistle only being used in the late 1870s. Similarly, although referees are typically associated with their black jersey and shorts, the earliest referees wore a blazer instead.
Today, the modern referee is a different animal altogether. The basic uniform has endured but the ‘man in black’ is no longer an accurate description, with new coloured jerseys introduced in the 1994 World Cup to account for possible clashes with team kits.
Technology has also dramatically helped, with the referee now always receiving advice from the other officials through an ear piece. Moreover, with the seemingly inexorable march towards goal-line technology and the like, the referee’s role is sure to change in the future. However, regardless of what is introduced, you can guarantee that referees will never get an easy ride from fans and players alike!